The Master Debater!

Have I ever mentioned how much I love Saint Thomas Aquinas?

…yes?

Well, let me talk about him more!

St. Thomas Aquinas was absolutely essential to my re-conversion of faith. Before St. Thomas Aquinas smashed himself into my life, I had gotten a bit lost, to be honest. I studied biochemical engineering in university (no, I am not actually a trained art historian!) and got sucked into the odd, but popular, belief that science was the best way to to explain and understand everything.

This is a picture of me, back in 2011, when I was doing genetic engineering classwork in the lab. Here I am, sorting out pipet tips that would later be used for DNA extraction!

Except for the fact that it isn’t the best way to explain and understand everything. In fact, it’s a terrible way to explain and understand everything — science only can tell you how things happen, and pretty much the rest of it is speculation. Educated speculation, yes, but you quickly realize that science is not the way to Truth. In fact, learning the scientific method, you learn that you can never learn what the True really is.

And the deeper in science I got into science, the more frustrated and disillusioned with the depth of answers it provided. It answered big and important questions, mind you, and I loved doing the lab work involved.
But it did not seem to answer the biggest and most important questions.

The answers to these biggest and most important questions seemed to be wrapped up, not in science, but rather in philosophy and theology. But the Baptist group that I visited with didn’t seem to have the answers to the questions that I had. After all, I wanted a solid proof — similar to the proofs that I knew from math — of the existence of God. And that’s not an easy thing to provide. And, when they directed me to their library of books and their apologetics section, the books were written in the last century and seemed to be more like motivational books than anything really substantial.

This was especially true since at the time I was taking some pretty intense university classes. There were, of course, the science and engineering classes that were required for my major — Quantum Mechanics, Fluid Dynamics, Genetics, for starters. But I was also taking plenty of humanities courses where I was studying Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I wanted something meaty that laid out a proof of God! I wanted to be intellectually challenged! I didn’t just want to be motivated into believing in God. In fact, the motivational language was off-putting for me. After all, what if the motivation ends? What if it gets hard to believe in God as you go through life’s trials? I wanted something concrete that wasn’t based on my emotions — which fluctuated day by day. The philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle seemed to make sense. An enormous amount of sense, actually. In fact, the more I read of those ancient Greek philosophers, the more they seemed to make sense. The theology of Christianity? Not so much.

And so, I decided to look into Catholicism more. After all, this faith had been around for two millenia now. Plus, I was already baptized in it! Perhaps it might have something to offer that was beyond mere motivational words.

I was poor then, but I found a free ebook of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. Free was a price that I could afford! And so I downloaded it, figuring that since it was written by a saint, maybe it would be a worthwhile perspective.

Mind you! At the time, I didn’t really know anything about St. Thomas Aquinas, except he was from the Dark Ages. I sort of expected some sort of pious, religious sort of devotional work that didn’t really have much meat in it (because like… weren’t the Dark Ages when they didn’t have a lot of science?) and honestly didn’t expect much.

This is how Summa Theologica starts off with:

Article 1. Whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required?
Objection 1. It seems that, besides philosophical science, we have no need of any further knowledge. For man should not seek to know what is above reason: “Seek not the things that are too high for thee” (Sirach 3:22). But whatever is not above reason is fully treated of in philosophical science. Therefore any other knowledge besides philosophical science is superfluous.

Objection 2. Further, knowledge can be concerned only with being, for nothing can be known, save what is true; and all that is, is true. But everything that is, is treated of in philosophical science—even God Himself; so that there is a part of philosophy called theology, or the divine science, as Aristotle has proved (Metaph. vi). Therefore, besides philosophical science, there is no need of any further knowledge.

On the contrary, It is written (2 Timothy 3:16): “All Scripture, inspired of God is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice.” Now Scripture, inspired of God, is no part of philosophical science, which has been built up by human reason. Therefore it is useful that besides philosophical science, there should be other knowledge, i.e. inspired of God.

I answer that, It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.

Reply to Objection 1. Although those things which are beyond man’s knowledge may not be sought for by man through his reason, nevertheless, once they are revealed by God, they must be accepted by faith. Hence the sacred text continues, “For many things are shown to thee above the understanding of man” (Sirach 3:25). And in this, the sacred science consists.

Reply to Objection 2. Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself. Hence there is no reason why those things which may be learned from philosophical science, so far as they can be known by natural reason, may not also be taught us by another science so far as they fall within revelation. Hence theology included in sacred doctrine differs in kind from that theology which is part of philosophy.

…and that’s how it’s start off. You can read the rest of the first chapter here. And you can read the whole thing here, if you’d like. (Start with Prima Pars, which is part one.)

I read this introduction and was astounded. These were thoughts that were circulating through my head… that idea that there had to be more than something than science. The idea that there was something greater even than the philosophy that I immersed myself in.

But these ideas were laid out in an articulate manner that delved deep into philosophy in a beautifully and well-thought out way that was rich with citations to profound books which I loved. It was in a format similar to some of the scientific proofs that I had become accustomed to seeing. (Later, I found out that Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas were fundamental in developing the origins of what we now call the Scientific Method.)

I read on, astounded at seeing my thoughts written out by a humble monk centuries before I even existed — in the Dark Ages, no less! It went through questions that I had about whether theology was even important. It talked about why it was important.

And yes, there was a profound proof of the existence of God. In the second chapter, no less.

I was stunned.

And so, feeling a lot more humbled after seeing all my objections that I had roundly disproved, I read more of his work. I read other saints’ works. I learned more. And I learned to love Christ and His Church all the more.

Well! Apparently, I was not the first to be confounded by St. Thomas Aquinas and his philosophy. Take a look at this artwork…

St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës, by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1445-50. St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri, United States. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës, by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1445-50. St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri, United States.

It is an image of St. Thomas Aquinas debating the philosopher, Averroës. In fact! He is not merely debating but confounding the philosopher, who is sleeping at his feet.

Which begs the question… who is Averroës and why is this scene so important that one of the leading artists of the time chose to depict this scene?

Well! Apparently I was not the first person who read the ancient Greek philosophers and decided that they were probably right. In fact, during the Golden Age of Islam, there were many Muslim philosophers who read ancient Greek philosophy and saw a lot of truth in it. And so, they used the Platonic and Aristotelian framework of arguing and as a way to justify their faith in the Islamic faith.

Averroës was a particularly important philosopher, and he was known in the West as The Commentator, as he was one of the most important commentators of Aristotle in his time. Not only that, but he used Aristotelian philosophy to promote and defend the Islamic faith, and used this philosophy to transform his Islamic society as a qadi, or a judge of Sharia Law who would give fatwas, or legal opinions. He was known by the Calliph, or the leader of the Islamic faith, and though he once did fall in and out of favor as the Calliph changed, he was still profoundly influential, not only to the Islamic world at the time at the height of their influence, but also on Western Society.

This caused quite a controversy, especially as their writings spread, and several popes even banned the teaching of Aristotle, just to try to keep people from reading this philosophies and commentaries that were coming out from the Middle East, including from A. After all, there was no real Christian way of looking at Aristotle at the time, and nobody really wrote any commentaries looking at the Greek philosophers in a Christian view.

This changed with St. Thomas Aquinas. He was a brilliant man and his masterwork, Summa Theologica, serve both as a philosophical proof to God and Christianity and as a commentary and interpretation of Aristotle. In his masterwork, he refuted some of the parts of Averroës commentaries which had been deemed heretical by the popes before. And he explained why those beliefs were wrong in such a way that made sense and were logically sound. With this masterwork, the popes removed the censorship of Aristotle’s works. This masterwork also led to the development that would eventually lead to the scientific method. Indeed, if you read Sir Isaac Newton’s works, you’ll see that he was profoundly influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas — after all, he structured his writings very similarly to St. Thomas Aquinas’s work!

So why was this sort of art popular? Because St. Thomas Aquinas’s book changed the course of Western Civilization as we know it. And that’s important. So, while you’ll see artwork depicting him writing, you’ll also see artworks such as these in which he is triumphing over various philosophers, like this particular piece.

Mind you, his masterwork didn’t completely stop the followers of Averroës — there were a school of Islamic philosophy who believed in his particular beliefs well into the sixteenth century. Yet, Thomism, or the school of philosophy that originated with St. Thomas Aquinas’s works, is still studied and debated to this very day.

And his writings still continue to influence Christians! I am living proof of this. After all, his writings were one of the things that brought me back to the Church and begin to realize that the teachings of the Church were not only good on a spiritual level, but also intellectually sound.

It is said that once St. Thomas Aquinas once had a vision in which Christ appeared to him and said, “Bene scripsisti de me Thomma” or, in English, “You have written well of me, Thomas.” And, on St. Thomas Aquinas’s feast day, I can’t help but to reflect on these words and realize how true they are, especially in my own life. God used this humble man, who was once nicknamed “the dumb ox” by his fellow Dominican brothers, to change the world with his intellect and to lead people — including myself! — to Christ. May we be humbled enough to follow God’s will in our own lives.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

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